In Falling Snow
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“And if I hadn’t gone to Royaumont, hadn’t learned about a world where women sat rather than served at table, I’d never have had cause to complain, never have known what I missed” (p. 328).
It’s been six decades since World War I ended, and Iris Crane’s memories of those years have long since dimmed. But after an envelope emblazoned with the Royaumont “R” arrives at her home, she hesitates to open it. When she does, its contents transport the elderly grandmother from 1970s Australia to a time when she was “twentyone years of age and alighting from the train in Paris” (p. 7). Iris was in France on a mission. Her fifteenyearold brother, Tom, had fled the family farm to enlist and fight in the war, despite their father’s wishes. Their father wasn’t a pacifist, but he felt “Australia wasn’t Britain and shouldn’t be in a British war” (p. 27). And because Iris was six years old when her mother died giving birth to Tom, Iris has always regarded her brother as her personal responsibility.
Following a rumor of Tom’s whereabouts, Iris finds herself stranded in Paris. “This new Iris ate lunch in a café in Montmartre . . . and drank red wine that came in a little glass bottle and tasted like the fruit it had once been” (p. 29). Then, at the Gare du Nord, a charismatic stranger upsets all her plans. Dr. Frances Ivens is also a new arrival with a mission: to establish a field hospital that will be staffed wholly by women. Besides being a trained nurse, Iristhanks to her stepmotherspeaks fluent French. When Iris steps in to translate Dr. Ivens’ conversation with a train porter, Dr. Ivens insists that Iris join her team at Royaumont, saying, “You should know that you and I and the rest are at the beginning of something momentous” (p. 8).
Iris is swept off to Royaumont, where she works with Dr. Ivens to turn the dilapidated abbey into a functioning hospital and earn the CroixRouge certification they need to receive wounded soldiers. Still thinking of her younger brother, Iris tells herself, “It couldn’t hurt to be useful while I searched” (p. 78). Then in Royaumont, Iris becomes best friends with Violet Heron, a volunteer ambulance driver with an aristocratic pedigree and a reckless attitude. Both women thrive on the responsibilities bestowed upon them by the absence of ablebodied men, but as Iris is reunited with Tom and the front moves ever closer to Royaumont, the war becomes personal in ways none of them could have imagined.
In her American debut novel, awardwinning author MaryRose MacColl interweaves Iris’s experiences during World War I with those of Iris’s granddaughter, Grace, an overwhelmed obstetrician practicing in 1970s Australia. Through the years, however, Iris tells Grace nothing about Royaumont. Only after Iris receives the disconcerting letter does Grace begin to unravel her grandmother’s longburied secret and the unthinkable tragedy it heralds. Powerful and richlylayered, In Falling Snow salutes the real women of Royaumont as it offers a haunting exploration of first love, the cruelties of war, and women’s ongoing struggle for equality.
MaryRose MacColl’s first novel, No Safe Place, was a runnerup for the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. She lives in Brisbane, Australia, and Banff, Canada, with her husband and young son. In Falling Snow is her American debut.
In your Author’s Note, you write about accidentally stumbling upon Women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front in a library. What inspired you to interweave the story of Royaumont with that of a female doctor battling sexism in the 1970s?
I was really interested in these women from my grandmother’s generation who’d achieved something extraordinary at a time when it was very difficult for women to pursue professional lives. I very much wanted to honor them and was surprised that their story hadn’t yet captured the public imagination. The seventies was another key period for women in professions. Grace is the first generation of women to “have it all.” I didn’t think of these things consciously while writing. Iris was always going to be reflecting on her past experience at a later time. Grace walked in one day and started bossing her grandmother around. She happened to be part of the first generation of women who were mothers and doctors and it was just a lovely time to write about.
You gave Iris Crane your grandmother’s surname. Do they share any other characteristics?
For me, writing always has an intellectual trigger and an emotional trigger. I was very close to my maternal grandmother, Meta Crane, who was one of those grandmothers who made everything right in my young life. She died soon after I came across the women of Royaumont. She was about the right age to have served in World War I and she was a nurse. I started to wonder what her life might have been like if instead of doing the things she’d donemarrying my grandfather, running his medical practice and raising four childrenshe’d gone to Royaumont. She and Iris do share some qualities in common. They’re both nurses who grew up on a property called Risdon in the country west of Brisbane in Queensland. My grandmother married Al (Alban Lynch not Alastair Hogan) and the two Als are both doctors whose practices are in Fortitude Valley.
Is Dr. Frances Ivens based upon the real founder and head of Royaumont? Does the abbey where the hospital was established still exist?
Oh yes, all the characters at Royaumont other than Violet and Iris are based on the real doctors and nurses and orderlies who worked there. Miss Ivens was the medical chief of the hospital. Obviously my character is imaginedI never met the real Frances Ivensbut her quick assessment of a situation (sometimes to a fault), her organisational skills (or lack thereof when it comes to details!), confidence and especially, her bedside manner, were all a matter of record. As for the abbey, it’s now a cultural foundation for France and I was very lucky to stay there for a week while researching the novel which allowed me to walk through those corridors, up the stairs where the orderlies carried patients, to the wards where the patients were cared for. It’s a truly amazing place.
Between the Senegalese conscripts, the firing squads, and the French soldiers’ “precious pinard,” you’ve recreated the feel of World War I in astonishing detail. How long did it take you to research this book?
I first read the history of Royaumont in Eileen Crofton’s The Women of Royaumont which was very helpful (it’s being republished this year as Angels of Mercy by English publisher Birlinn). From there, I read mainly firsthand accounts of the experiences of doctors, nurses and soldiers during the war. I was quite nervous about writing some of the marginalised stories, including those of African soldiers and I was lucky enough to find an audiorecorded account of a Senegalese soldier which helped me understand better what war must have been like for these people. I also read some of the broader history to know what happened when and where. I tend to write first and research later so the whole process was years rather than months.
In an earlier nonfiction work called The Birth Wars, you wrote about the conflict between those who view birth as a medical procedure and those who see it as a natural process. In Grace, you created an OBGYN who views pain relief during childbirth as a woman’s right. What drew you to return to the subject in this novel?
Maternity care, in Australia and elsewhere, is in a state of entrenched conflict. Instead of people on both sides of that conflict working together to make sure women get the best evidencebased maternity care, in many care environments, the two sides are at war with one another. Although the battles were different in the seventies from how they are now, the war is the same. When I came to write The Birth Wars, I was amazed that in the twentyfirst century we haven’t sorted this out. I came back to this conflict with In Falling Snow because it was still in my mind. It’s also relevant to the novel’s themes.
In Falling Snow displays a thorough understanding of medicine, particularly of obstetrics. Was this a career you once considered pursuing yourself?
I didn’t ever consider a career in medicine. I have worked closely with doctors on reviews over the yearsI worked in universities for ten years and as a consultant writer on a number of health and medical reviewsand met many obstetricians and midwives while researching The Birth Wars. Grace’s character came very naturally, but I also wanted to make sure the obstetrics in the novel was truetolife. An obstetrician friend kindly read the novel in manuscript for me.
Do you believe that women in medicine today face less professional prejudice than they did in Grace’s time?
Yes. Women who wanted to study medicine in the early twentieth century faced barriers even in terms of getting in to medical schools. Now the intake into medicine is around fifty percent female. But there are still issues for women who want careers and children and they are fraught.
Would you consider this a feminist novel?
In Falling Snow first and foremost tells the story of the women of Royaumont and they were extraordinary. It certainly reflects on the issues facing those women who wanted to pursue careers at the time when this was largely unavailable to women. In the seventies, again women were negotiating career and family issues. They were great times to write about.
You divide your time between Australia and Canada. Do you consider yourself as a citizen of one country more than the other?
I was born in Australia and grew up there but feel enormous affinity with Canada and the mountains around Banff in Alberta. Fortunately, the Banff Centre makes it possible for writers to stay in Banff to work on projects. I’ve written my last two novels in Banff.
Who are some of your favorite writers and literary influences?
I grew up reading Superman and Batman comics with my three brothers. My mother was a keen reader and didn’t really care what we read so long as our eyes were on words. I eventually grew out of comics and now read widely so I’ll limit myself to writers who I’ve tended to read everything of (in no particular order): Amanda Lohrey, Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Bronte, Kate Atkinson, Carol Shields, Michel Odent, Eowyn Ivey, Tim Winton, Umberto Eco, Atul Gawande, Ann Patchett, and Sebastian Barry.
What are you working on now?
Another wonderful and largely unknown story about swimming in the 1920s. I have an Australian character living in England who goes to America to train with the Women’s Swimming Association in New York (a really great group) and comes back in 1926 intending to cross the English Channel.
- Caught up by Dr. Ivens’ personality and vision, Iris postpones her original mission. Although she later comes to question her decision to stay at Royaumont, do you believe Tom would have returned with Iris to Australia had she found him earlier?
- Have you ever met someone like Dr. Ivens? Why is charisma as crucial a part of her job as talent?
- How does Cicely’s story about her mentally ill mother add to the novel?
- Did Violet take Tom as a lover for her own sake or for Iris’s? How did learning that Violet received the scholarship to study medicine affect your opinion of her?
- At the beginning of the book, Grace thinks of Iris as unerringly proper. It’s only later that she discovers the many secrets her grandmother kept. Why is it so difficult for us to see older generations as individuals with passions and disappointments of their own?
- Why does Iris offer to raise Violet and Tom’s child as her own? Would you be willing to do the same if it meant deferring your personal ambitions?
- How did In Falling Snow affect your feelings on the difficulties faced by women of previous generations? If you had been alive during World War I, what do you imagine you might have been doing?
- Do you agree with Iris’s decision to delay calling the ambulance until she felt certain that Al couldn’t be revived? Did she come to truly love him?
- What does the baby sugar glider represent?
- Towards the end of the novel, a letter from Iris to Violet reveals that she believes each of them wound up living the life that suited her best. What do you think?